Wearing tzitzit a suka of peace
Shelach Lecha, Numbers 13:1–15:41
This week’s parsha contains the well-known story of the 12 spies sent into Canaan to assess the strength of the indigenous people and the productivity of the land.
Adonai instructs Moses to sh’lach l’cha — send for yourself — spies representing each of the 12 tribes, presumably because G-d already has promised the land to the Hebrews and knows the ultimate outcome. Of the 12, only Caleb and Joshua are optimistic about the Promised Land, and they try to assure and rally the people. But the majority of the Hebrews side with the other 10 spies, who see themselves as “grasshoppers” compared to the “giants” they report as inhabiting Canaan. The Hebrews rebel against G-d and once more, Moses intercedes to save them from destruction. Yet the price of their lack of trust in Adonai is high, for the Holy One declares that the Hebrews will wander the desert for another 40 years, and none of the wilderness generation — save Caleb and Joshua — will live to enter the Promised Land.
The remainder of the parsha focuses on a variety of laws, a case study involving the desecration of Shabbat, and the commandment to wear fringes — tzitzit — on one’s garment as a reminder to obey G-d’s laws. This last commandment comprises the whole of the maftir aliya — the concluding section of the Torah portion. In a traditional congregation, the maftir section often is selected by the bar or bat mitzva to read as his/her Torah portion. The last two verses of the shelach lecha maftir are well-known from our liturgical prayers. They comprise the final verses of the four-paragraph prayer, the Shema, and also serve as the chatima, or seal, of the prayer. B’nai mitzva students who have this parsha are delighted to discover they already know two verses of their Torah portion. They also find it relatively easy to relate to this commandment. After all, Jews are still actively practicing the custom of wearing tzitzit on their tallitot on Shabbat, and traditional Jews don the fringes on a daily basis.
In my experience, choosing a tallit is an important part of the process of becoming a bar or bat mitzva. Sometimes the tallit has been lovingly passed down through the generations. Stains, yellowing of the fabric, or fraying at the neck edge contribute to the beauty of this type of well-loved and well-used prayer shawl. Choosing a tallit also can involve an exhaustive Internet search to find the perfect prayer shawl to fit the tastes of the young adult, or a trip to Squirrel Hill to be able to see and feel the tallit before purchase. Some are made by the student in a class; others by a loving family member. Whatever the origin of the prayer shawl, the moment that it is first put on during the service, accompanied by a special bracha, is a touching moment for the young adult, family and congregation.
I did not experience the singular experience of putting on a tallit until I was well into my adult years. I was attending a Union for Reform Judaism national convention. The person sitting next to me at a worship service had brought two with her — one to wear and one to share. To this day, I remember the feeling that wrapping the tallit around my shoulders gave me. Surely a “suka of peace” had been spread over me. Something had shifted in the donning of the tallit, and now I was really ready to pray. Stroking the fringes truly put me in the mindset of obeying G-d’s laws. In “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” Beth Cardin shares this reflection on the commandment to wear tzitzit in Numbers 15:37-51. “When I put on a tallit, even when I am alone, I place myself in the folds of my people.” Later, she writes, “I fill up my tallit. No matter my size, I always will. And it is in that fullness that I am counted as a member of the congregation.”
It is comforting and mind-boggling to realize this commandment was ordained over 3,000 years ago in an isolated desert encampment to a scrappy people with an uneven track record of accepting Adonai’s direction. Yet, through Moses’ intervention and Adonai’s mercy and love, that “stiff-necked” people survived to pass down, so many generations later, the commandment to wear tzitzit as a reminder to obey the Holy One’s laws.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)